Like many aspiring musicians, Taylor Hicks, the Season 5 winner of "American Idol," got his start playing little clubs. Unlike other musicians, Hicks had to share time with fish tossing.
"It was one of my very first gigs," Hicks said of performing at a lounge called Flora-Bama. "It's right on the border as the name implies, but it's best known for the International Mullet Toss."
Mullets, Hicks said, are the Gulf Coast equivalent of codfish.
"Essentially, they put all these fish in a garbage can, all slicked up, and people toss them," he said. "A lot of people see how drunk they can get, and how far they can throw a fish."
Hicks played the Flora-Bama "both legally and illegally" of age and under. He started when he was 16 and would play in the afternoons.
"We would build an audience so we could move to later slots," he said. "It was truly a wonderful place to learn."
Hicks' debut engagement at Harrah's Reno runs Tuesday and Wednesday and Aug. 31 through Sept. 3 (Labor Day). It's an encouraging booking because it's the first time in a long time Harrah's Reno has hosted a major headliner.
Caesars Entertainment, which owns Harrah's, has signed Hicks to an extended contract for its properties. He comes to Reno from Bally's in Las Vegas "where the audiences have been terrific," Hicks said.
"You know, a lot of the people in the audiences have listened to my records, but this is the first chance to see me perform live, and they discover there's a lot more than meets the eye," Hicks said. "I was on 'Idol' the last year that they were a strictly singing competition, so when I start to play the harmonica and the organ and other instruments, they find out I've got a few extra tricks up my sleeve."
Ratings have declined, but "American Idol" remains one of the most-watched shows on television. It is known as much for destroying egos as for building careers.
"You're opening yourself up to the public, and you have to be ready for it," Hicks said. "You might just get what you ask for, and you have to be ready for the peaks and the valleys. Television is the new radio, so to speak, and it can be brutal."
Hicks' first single, "Do I Make You Proud," debuted at No. 1, and he has toured and performed on Broadway in the role of Teen Angel in "Grease." He has released two albums and an autobiography, titled "Heart Full of Soul."
"I'm working on a country album now," Hicks said. "It makes sense as the next step musically for me. After all, I came from Alabama with a banjo on my knee."
Hicks is not performing Thursday because he is flying to Tampa, Fla., to sing "Takin' It to the Streets" at the Republican National Convention. (7 p.m.; $25, $35; $50 includes a meet-and-greet; 800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com)
Ribs are on the grill again:
John Ascuaga's Nugget hosts its 24th annual Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off Wednesday through Sept. 3. More than 121,000 pounds of ribs are expected to be consumed. The cookers from across the nation (including last year's winner, Back Forty Texas BBQ) will join crafts and merchandise booths all along Sparks' Victorian Avenue and adjoining properties.
Free entertainment is featured each day at 7 p.m. Headliners include Jelly Bread (funk, soul, roots rock) on Wednesday; the Wood Brothers (blues and folk) on Thursday; the Spin Doctors, known for "Two Princes" and "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong," on Aug. 31; Gloriana, propelled into the spotlight three years ago with "Wild at Heart," Sept. 1; and Southern rock band Molly Hatchet on Sept. 2.
A different flavor of entertainment will be offered at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the World Rib-Eating Championship. Last year's winner, Joey Chestnut (also six-time Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest champ), won his fifth rib title, downing 7.5 pounds of pork in 12 minutes.
Chicago native Pat "Deep Dish" Bertoletti, ranked the No. 2 eater in the world, and others will challenge.
The cook-off runs from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily (to 5 p.m. Sept. 3). A shuttle service will run from 5-10 p.m. Wednesday through Aug. 31 and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sept. 1 and 2 from Legends at Sparks Arena off the Sparks Boulevard exit from Interstate 80, between Fudd- ruckers and Popeye's. (No shuttle service Sept. 3.)
Out and about
One of the master bands of the power ballad, REO Speedwagon, appears Saturday at Thunder Valley in Lincoln. Fans remain eager to hear songs such as "Keep on Lovin' You," "Can't Fight This Feeling," and "Take It on the Run."
(8 p.m.; $24.50, $29.50, $43.50, $59.50, $69.50; thundervalleyresort.com)
George Benson's continually evolving music defies categorization. Way back in 1976, it was so hard to label his breakthrough album "Breezin' " that its hit song "This Masquerade" topped the jazz, pop, and soul charts. Hear Benson live Saturday at Cache Creek in Brooks. (8 p.m.; $69, $79, $89; cachecreek.com)
Top names in off-road racing roar in for the first Toyota Silver State Showdown, part of the Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series at the new Wild West Motorsports Park east of Sparks.
The 11th and 12th races of the national racing are Saturday and Sunday, with names including seven-time Supercross champion Jeremy McGrath. ($30 each day, $50 for two days; tickets and schedule at lucasoiloffroad.com)
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Jimmy Cliff takes the MontBleu outdoor arena stage Saturday, joined by several other groups. Doors open at 5 p.m. ($39.50; 788-588-3515 or Ticketmaster.com)
Brian Regan is the most popular comedian in Utah, but he's established a strong base for his clean comedy in Reno, too. He appears tonight at the Silver Legacy. (8 p.m.; $46, $60; 800-687-8733, silverlegacy.com, or Ticketmaster.com).
If the Truckee River looks yellow Sunday in Reno, take a closer look, and spot 15,000 bright rubber duckies. They'll race for the Nevada Humane Society, which also will sponsor free entertainment from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Wingfield Park.